“The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Yogi Berra
While it was encouraging to see my hometown Oakland A’s lead the league in 2015 by hiring the first female MLB coach in Justine Siegal (guest instructor for the Arizona Fall League) and, more recently, hire their first female scouting coordinator in Haley Alvarez, progress towards the inclusion of women in baseball feels slow.
The Inclusion of Women in Baseball Feels Slow
As I celebrate these milestones, I also wonder why these events are still considered groundbreaking in this day and age. In fact, the fanfare surrounding the ascension of a few women into important positions in Major League Baseball originally made me assume that women did not play a role in baseball until recently, other than the widely known All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of “A League of Their Own” fame.
Yet, women have been a part of baseball almost since its birth – the first women’s college baseball team was formed at Vassar College in 1886. Here’s a look at other pioneering women in baseball:
Lizzie Murphy, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball
Born in 1894, Lizzie Murphy was a multi-sport athlete who would come to be known as the Queen of Baseball. Her crowning and perhaps most well-known moment was playing first base for the American League All-Stars in a 1922 exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox. This game is the reason that Lizzie (whose first name was emblazoned across her baseball jersey) is credited as the first woman to play in an MLB exhibition game. She also carried an impressive .300 career batting average on Eddie Carr’s All-Stars of Boston, a team featuring several former major leaguers, for which she played from 1920-1935.
Another jewel in Lizzie’s crown was when she singled off of Satchel Paige in an exhibition game between her barnstorming team and a Negro League team. She was the first baseball player of either gender to play in games for both the American League and National League All-Star teams (against the Red Sox and Boston Braves, respectively).
While all are admirable feats, I see her biggest accomplishment as her successful fight to be paid for her play, thereby becoming the first female holdout in baseball. In her first game with her hometown Warren (Rhode Island) semi-pro team, Lizzie was not given a share of the pot (a hat that was passed among the crowd for contributions) which was normally split evenly among the players after a game. Her second game was expected to draw a large, curious crowd. Lizzie shrewdly waited until the morning of the game before demanding to be paid for her play on the field. She was granted a sum of $5 per game, plus her share of the pot. In later years, she would be compensated for her play with both the Providence Independents and the All-Stars of Boston.
Jackie Mitchell, the Woman who Struck out the Heart of Murderer’s Row
Another multi-sport athlete, Jackie Mitchell was born in Tennessee in 1913. She was coached by her neighbor, Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance. After playing for a women’s baseball team and attending a baseball training camp, Jackie was signed to a minor league contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1931. Her first professional game was on April 2, 1931, and it was one for the history books. Almost unbelievably, the 17-year-old struck out two of the greatest hitters of all-time, in succession. Babe Ruth took a ball, swung through 2 strikes, then struck out looking and threw his bat down in frustration. Lou Gehrig went down 1, 2, 3 on strikes. She walked the next batter and was pulled from the game.
Some baseball historians insist that Ruth and Gehrig struck out intentionally, as part of a publicity stunt for their gregarious manager Joe Engel. However, other experts contend that the two, especially Gehrig with his strong moral convictions, would never embarrass themselves by striking out on purpose, much less with a girl pitching. Newsreel footage of Mitchell’s debut is available on YouTube, and to me Ruth’s frustration after striking out appears genuine. Though Murphy did not appear to throw particularly hard, she did pitch with an unusual sidearm delivery and the batters had not faced her at the plate previously, making a strikeout a believable event. The disagreement among historians about Mitchell’s accomplishment is evidence that women still face an uphill battle in gaining acceptance in baseball.
Edith Houghton, First Solo Female Scout for a Major League Team
Long before the Oakland Athletics’ Haley Alvarez was born, Houghton made history as the first solo female scout for a Major League baseball team. In 1946, she convinced the Philadelphia Phillies to hire her as a scout. Prior to petitioning for the job, Houghton played (well) in the Bloomer Girls League in the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, at just 10 years old she joined a women’s semi-professional baseball team; at 13, she traveled to Japan with her team to play against a men’s team. Her accomplishments as a player lent credibility to her baseball knowledge when she asked for the job as a major league scout.
One other woman, Bessie Largent, preceded Edith as a major league scout, but did so in partnership with her husband. Despite Edith pioneering the way in 1946, the next full-time female scout was not hired until 2016 (Amanda Hopkins, Seattle Mariners), a disappointing but not entirely surprising lack of progress in 70 years.
Effa Manley, First Woman Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Effa moved to New York as an adult and attended games at Yankee Stadium. She met her future husband and business partner at a World Series game in 1932. In 1935, the Manleys founded the Brooklyn Eagles (soon to become the Newark Eagles) and would own the Negro League team through 1948. Though she co-owned the team with Abe, Effa handled most of the business affairs of the team, coordinating contracts, travel schedules, promotions, and the like. She also prepared her players for success, helping them find jobs in the off-season, loaning them money, and even becoming a godparent to their children. Although most owners begrudged the fact that a woman was so involved in the league, she, along with Abe, was named Treasurer of the Negro National League.
While Effa’s business resume is impressive, her most important accomplishments transcend baseball. In 1934, she organized a boycott of stores in Harlem that refused to hire black workers. After six weeks, the stores acquiesced. Effa also pioneered the support of civic causes through baseball. Today, MLB clubs have Community Funds and promote causes throughout the season. Effa began doing this way back in the 1930s, harnessing the community support behind the team to assist World War II soldiers, a community hospital, and Civil Rights.
After Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers in 1947, Effa fought for compensation for owners of Negro League teams when their players signed with Major League Baseball teams. She ensured that future Negro League players would not simply be taken from their teams without fair compensation to the team owners. Upon her death in 1981, her tombstone simply read, “She loved baseball.”
“The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the future may have looked bright for women in baseball – the sport had already seen its first female owner, scouts, professional players, and managers (of women’s teams) – and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was in full swing. Women were not fully included in the business of baseball, but progress had begun. However, as Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
In 2018, we have few female scouts, have not seen female umpires or coaches move beyond the minor leagues, and have not seen a female play in a major league game. We were excited to have a television series about a female baseball player, to have a woman throw batting practice to men, or to have one female MLB television analyst. The first female sports writer (Claire Smith) was not honored at the Hall of Fame until 2017.
While these are important accomplishments, they should be commonplace in a sport that women have been a part of for over 100 years. Are we, as women, missing out on the opportunity to participate on the field and in the front office of a sport we love? Yes. But more importantly, baseball is missing out on the opportunity to harness the creativity, passion, and intelligence of women. “It’s like deja vu all over again.”